7-foot-7 basketball player Robert Bobroczkyi is a star attraction despite rarely playing

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Photo - Robert Bobroczkyi is a unique basketball project — and a high schooler trying to fit in (Photos by Katherine Frey)
Robert Bobroczkyi is a unique basketball project — and a high schooler trying to fit in (Photos by Katherine Frey)

7-FOOT-7 AT 17 YEARS OLD

Robert Bobroczkyi was the last player to emerge from the victorious locker room, arching his neck just enough to fit under the doorway. He put a red hood over his head and made his way through the cinder-block hallways of an unfamiliar arena. He couldn’t find his teammates.

Bobroczkyi stood behind a black curtain by the entrance of the gym. He peeked out and could see that people were already gawking. Finally, he spotted his teammates in the stands and made a run for it. Hundreds of people whipped out their phones and began recording, some trying to be discreet, as if they felt bad about filming a 17-year-old who has never had a say in being 7 feet 7 inches tall.

Bobroczkyi can relax around his teammates at Spire Academy, which is based about 45 minutes east of Cleveland.  

He walked up a section full of students and kept his head down. Little kids, giggling, chased him and formed a line to get his autograph in their tournament programs, which advertised Bobroczkyi as an “attraction” even though he hadn’t played a second in the game his team just won. He signed at least a hundred items, nodding after each child thanked him. He shooed away all photo requests from older spectators, refusing to be a trophy on their Instagram and Facebook accounts. Already he has reported three Instagram accounts for using his name and videos of him.

“Hey, Rob, can you go sit somewhere else? We’re trying to watch the game,” one teammate joked, and Bobroczkyi’s face turned red before he let out a laugh. He has been both a medical study and a social-media curiosity for years, but his friends always make him feel normal. He lowered his hood. The line of autograph seekers and photo hounds thinned.

“Good job, Rob,” one of his teammates said, patting Bobroczkyi on the shoulder.

Bobroczkyi dreams of following fellow 7-7 players Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol into the NBA. 

6-FOOT-2 AT 8 YEARS OLD

A half-hour earlier, Bobroczkyi watched his Spire Academy teammates win the opening game of the Flyin’ To The Hoop tournament, which is considered one of the premier high school basketball events in the country. His young coach, Justin Clark, stood protectively beside Bobroczkyi outside the locker room afterward.

“Where did they go?” Clark asked before Bobroczkyi made a break for it, wondering where the rest of his players were sitting. “I just don’t want him to get bombarded.”

Clark spanned the arena for different routes to reach the rest of the team in the upper deck. This has become normal for the coach, because Bobroczkyi’s high school experience is anything but. He’s thousands of miles from his family in Romania, and for any teenager that would be difficult enough. But his height exacerbates everything.

“Nobody has ever trained anyone like him,” Spire’s Brandon Strausser said of Bobroczkyi. 

The Spire Academy provides specialized training, schooling and living accommodations for high school and postgraduate athletes. It is part of the Spire Institute, a 750,000-square foot facility on an unassuming 175-acre plot about 45 minutes east of Cleveland. Built in 2009, the complex has been christened as a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training facility, and the small town of Geneva, Ohio, has become a beacon for athletes.

The academy has become something of a basketball factory, saying on its website that it has placed more than 100 players in college programs over the past five years. The prospects have been stockpiled largely by the academy’s director, 34-year-old Bobby Bossman, who has built a vast network of relationships with coaches at the college, high school and AAU levels — as well as with agents and middlemen in overseas markets — to recruit players to his programs. Rarely does he stumble upon prospects out of sheer luck.

Bobroczkyi grants autograph requests from children, such as 11-year-old Xavier Henderson, but he refuses to be photographed by spectators, wary of where it will appear on social media. 

Bossman was sitting in his office at Spire one afternoon in 2014 when he came across a YouTube video of Bobroczkyi, then 7-3 and 13 years old, playing for A.S. Stella Azzura, an amateur basketball club in Italy that produced Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft. “Holy Toledo,” Bossman said under his breath. He Googled Bobroczkyi’s name and learned that he was already one of the tallest players in Europe.

Bobroczkyi sits at a specially designed, elevated table and chair at the Spire cafeteria. 

He immediately sent Bobroczkyi a Facebook message, but he didn’t initially believe it would lead anywhere. When Bobroczkyi replied, they began an unlikely relationship that continued with periodic messages over the next year. Only then did Bossman begin to peel back the layers of his most fascinating recruiting story.

Bobroczkyi had grown up in a basketball family in Romania. His father, Zsiga, stands 7-1 and played professional basketball as well as on Romania’s national team with Gheorghe Muresan, the former Washington Bullets player who at 7-7 is the tallest player in NBA history. That lineage explained Bobroczkyi’s infatuation with the sport, and his parents’ size — his mother is 6 feet tall — could at least explain his rapid growth early in his preteen years.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.